Thoughts on: “Doing Insider Research in Universities” (Trowler, 2012) Part 4 – Social practice theory

Ok, so one more post and I can put this book (Is it still a book on a Kindle?) down.

Social Practice theory is a direction that I’ve been encouraged to explore by my supervisor and I can see that if offers some promise if I do end up travelling down “how things work in organisations” type path.

I have to be honest, I understand that theory is important in underpinning the shape of one’s research and in being able to make a contribution to the scholarly world but what I’ve seen of SPT so far feels a little simplistic. Again, this is kind of the point of theory in that “making the familiar strange” type way and I have no doubt that the further into it I go, the more complex it will seem. On the plus side, there’s nothing in it yet that I strongly disagree with.

To paraphrase (horribly) my current understanding – the things that people do are influenced by their contexts and particularly the physical/material aspects of the things that they interact with. (The actions also influence the form that the material things take). People have a set of things that they do regularly and routinely. The contexts and external actors on these practices are important and should not be overlooked – these include the locations and groups where the actions take place.

Some interesting quotes from Trowler:

Practices have an evolving trajectory, rarely a revolutionary one

The process of context generation… is a very significant factor in changing organisations

Change initiatives work best when they are grounded in current sets of practices and build on them

(That has been a fairly common constant in much of what I have been reading of late – we want to scaffold “innovation” where possible. That and benchmarking really)

Trowler identifies what he calls eight “moments” in teaching and learning regimes (TLRs):

 which shape contextual concerns and which depict the social practices in place.
1. Recurrent practices
2. Tacit assumptions
3. Implicit theories of teaching and learning
4. Discursive repertoires
5. Conventions of appropriateness
6. Power relations
7. Subjectivities in interaction
8. Codes of signification

I’m not yet sure how I’ll start to unpack these but they appear to merit further consideration.

He wraps the book up with a discussion of further resources and some of the gaps in the current literature. He notes that there has been much less research looking into the organisational and management sides of higher education than other areas.

He goes on to examine some of the more common methodologies used in insider research in higher education, which gives me a few more leads to follow.

Common research methods or methodologies used in higher education research generally are: documentary analysis; comparative analysis; interviews; surveys; multivariate analyses; conceptual analyses, phenomenography; critical/feminist perspectives; and auto/biographical and observational studies

As an entry-way to this particular type of research, I found this book invaluable to setting the scene, systematically laying out the pros and cons of a range of approaches and providing some theoretical frameworks to wrap it up in. In fairness, I’m still at the stage where I don’t entirely know what I don’t know but there is an evenhandedness and accessibility to his writing that inspires some confidence.

I feel relatively confident that, given enough thought, it will be possible to conduct some interesting and worthwhile research in my institution.